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The Wolof word for cheek is pronounced “lekhi,” as in Hebrew. One of Wolof’s words for wise is pronounced the same as the Hebrew word “chacham.” A weaver or fabric merchant is called “rab,” similar to rabbi.
The Bani Israel also have a cultural trait in common with Jews: an aversion to intermarriage. According to Fadiga, the community tries not to assimilate, preferring to wed with members of the tribe who live in neighboring villages.
“I believe there is an element of truth to the tradition of the Bani Israel, especially since they have nothing to gain from pretending,” says Behar, who returned from Senegal in 2011. “They’re not seeking Israeli citizenship, nor are they claiming to be Jewish. In fact, their Jewish ancestry and name can only give them problems.”
Though their Jewish association is potentially problematic in a Muslim country — according to Behar, some residents have sought to change the village name in their passports to permit travel to Mecca — the story of Bani Israel’s origin is not universally accepted in Senegal. Abdoul Kader Taslimanka, a Senegalese writer who published a book last year about the community, “Bani Israel of Senegal,” says the name has nothing to do with Jews and in fact is taken from the title of a chapter of the Koran.
Some accounts do, however, support the last leg of the journey that Fadiga describes. Bani Israel are speakers of the Jahanke dialect, the language of the Diakhanke tribe, which the International Journal of African Historical Studies says migrated down the Niger River, settling in Mali, Guinea, Gambia and Senegal.
In his village, Fadiga is known as the marabou, the local equivalent of a shaman or bush doctor. Samba Diop, a villager in his 40s, says Fadiga has special healing powers that allow him to cure snake and scorpion bites with his hands. Children who suffer from epilepsy are encouraged to bite on amulets made by Fadiga’s younger wives from goat skin.
“When a snake bites one of us, we go to him and then the snake dies,” Diop says.
Unlike most villages in the area, the Bani Israel live in houses made of brick instead of mud and thatch huts. It also was the first village in the area to have a clinic and electrical generators, according to Fadiga.
The school in Bani Israel is surrounded by a tall brick wall. Inside, teachers give lessons in French, math and science. The school day begins at 5:30 a.m. and finishes by noon, when the asbestos-roofed classrooms become as hot as ovens.
Such relative luxuries are financed by about 1,000 Bani Israel who live in the Senegalese capital of Dakar or in France, sending monthly donations back to the village. Unusually for the region, the money is not sent directly to relatives but is placed in a communal trust that pays for health services and schools, which in turn service not only the village but the entire remote region.
“This place is blessed and its people are chosen,” Fadiga says. “But some people resent us for it, so it’s best not to talk too much about it.”